A ‘rare’ medium

Philadelphia artist and photographer Dominic Episcopo is set to release his book, “Meat America,” depicting various American iconic images and symbols shaped out of raw meat.

Dominic Episcopo holds his photo book, which he funded through Kickstarter, in his home. | ANDREW THAYER / TTN

Meat isn’t just for grilling, broiling or marinating anymore – ask local artist Dominic Episcopo, who makes art out of it.

Episcopo, a professional photographer and 1989 graduate of the University of the Arts, is experimenting with some unconventional mediums for his upcoming book “Meat America.”

Consisting of portraits from Michael Jackson to the Liberty Bell, this is the first big meat-art project Episcopo has taken on, though he has worked with raw meat for about seven years.

“It’s definitely a milestone for me and an accomplishment. I’m really proud of it. I kind of get butterflies, because I’m putting myself out there and being judged and criticized,” he said.

In the past, the artist has worked primarily in portrait work and has been published in many magazines, including Rolling Stone.

He’s photographed everyone and everything from Marilyn Manson to Modest Mouse and, now, a slab of meat resembling Betsy Ross.

The marbling of a piece of meat that resembled the world map inspired his first project. This might have been too ambitious of a task to start with, so Episcopo tried to do the United States and each of the states. Since then, he has had to keep working on other pieces to keep his interest from rotting.

Each portrait starts with a trip to the butcher.

“I try to find a steak I find inspirational. Sometimes I go to the butcher with one idea in mind, then see a steak that resembles something else,” Episcopo said.

Instead of cutting out and molding each piece to represent some American historical figure or subject, he looks for it in the meat himself. He describes cutting the image out as a “cop-out.”

The process involves set up, hands on work and a little bit of Photoshop to get the perfect image.

“[For Abraham Lincoln], I kind of pinched the neck and got the basic shape and really had to fine tune. I can’t just cut the shape out of the steak. Then it becomes the shape with the pattern of meat in it,” he said.

The pattern of the meat has a lot to do with the image. He chooses certain meat based on the color and texture of the slabs. For example, porterhouse worked the best to make the state of New York, while rib eye steak worked best for New Jersey.

But finding the right material takes a lot of trial and error, Episcopo said.

Michael Jackson, who has made his way into the book, is crafted out of calf liver, because of its robust color, Episcopo said. But that was the last time Episcopo worked with that kind of meat.

“It was so gross. It smelled so gross to me. I had to cut it with a razor, and I would feel the tendons snapping back on me. It was the only time I had to walk away because it was so gross,” he said.

However, Episcopo worked strategically to make sure he woudn’t have to walk away again. He said he worked very quickly. He would set up the composition prior to the shoot, so after a few hours he could stop working with the meat.

“For the most part, I at least could stomach it,” he said.

During the project, Episcopo reserved a few days at a time to complete the process. On his successful days, he would get two or three completed. Some days, he would get none.

The artist said he realizes his book will get mixed reactions, especially from the vegetarian or vegan community, and he said he respects that. He said he tries to grow a thick skin, but said no one likes to be criticized or judged.

He said he understands the book takes on a sort of political standpoint, but that’s not exactly his aim. In a meat-crazed society ruled by mass production and over consumption, Episcopo said it’s inevitable not to. But he leaves his work to be interpreted by the readers.

“Some people are repulsed about it, some see the images as a rally cry. In our household, my wife tries to limit the meat we eat. The meat we eat is usually organic or grass fed,” he said.

Epsicopo is a part of Philly CowShare, though he said he could not use that same meat for the pieces because it tends to retain a purple color, is smaller and is not as robust as the $30 pieces of steak he purchases from the butcher.

“I mean it is expensive, there is no doubt, but I find that when I buy from more expensive stores, you get better cut, and it gets better to work with,” he said.

To be resourceful, Episcopo and his family sometimes eats his work after he is done photographing it.

His eating habits aren’t the only part of his life that reflect a conscious state of being.

Episcopo’s home also doubles as a studio. The building, which is formerly an abandoned church, has been altered to be environmentally friendly with solar panels. | ABI REIMOLD / TTN
Episcopo’s home also doubles as a studio. The building, which is formerly an abandoned church, has been altered to be environmentally friendly with solar panels. | ABI REIMOLD / TTN

Episcopo and his family live in a 150-year-old abandoned church, which he also converted into his studio.

At about 1,500 square feet, he was paying to heat and cool essentially two gymnasiums.

“If I was going to make this whole building work, I had to get the utilities down. Solar paneling made the most sense,” he said.

And that’s exactly what he did. Now, his studio and home is completely green and has the same utility costs as a regular house, he said.

“Plus, I kind of like the planet, so I figure that’s a good thing,” he said.

In the future, Episcopo isn’t sure if he sees himself working with meat as a medium again but perhaps more conventional uses of food instead.

To see his meat art, visit Episcopo’s website at meatamerica.com.

Episcopo said he hopes the book sees shelves by Father’s Day. Sellers, however, are yet to be determined.

Patricia Madej can be reached at patricia.madej@temple.edu.

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